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Can Kerala learn from Sri Lanka’s organic fertiliser experience?

By Aswini K.P.

The sudden switching to organic farming in Sri Lanka that ended up in a disaster has raised many questions regarding the concept’s efficacy and practicality. In the meantime, the Chief Minister of Kerala recently announced an organic farming drive in the State aiming at achieving self-sufficiency in the production of safe and healthy food.
However, the developments at the island nation were widely noticed and many became suspicious about the project. Although the Government has decided to implement the organic drive step by step, the concerns surrounding it have not settled yet.

Sri Lankan disaster

The move to completely avoid use of agrochemicals and promote organic alternatives in Sri Lanka did not yield the expected outcome and instead turned into a catastrophe. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the ban on the import of agrochemical products including fertilisers and pesticides in April this year, aiming to put an end to the contamination of water resources and spread of chronic diseases. The country also hoped to become the first organic-only nation in the world with this initiative. They believed that the huge sum spent for importing the chemical pesticides and fertilisers could be saved with this move.

Things took a new turn in a few months when the price of essential food items soared and the export of local produce got hit. Hoarding of food and the price hike of cooking gas were some of the negative outcomes of the decision. This made an adverse impact on the economy that was already facing a tough time following the pandemic outbreak and subsequent restrictions. Several agricultural experts and scientists stressed on the poor-researched implementation of the organic movement and the Government was vehemently criticised for the same.

Organic drive in Kerala

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the expansion of the organic farming scheme “Subhiksham Surakshitham” in the State with an aim of attaining self-sufficiency in food production and encouraging safe and healthy food consumption. The scheme envisages organic farming in 84,000 hectares of land across the State. In the initial phase, crops will be cultivated in the organic way in about 5,000 hectares.

However, the switching to organic farming raised doubts as a similar move in Sri Lanka yielded tragic results. Former Agriculture Minister V.S. Sunil Kumar, who was one of the masterminds behind the organic farming drive, told Mathrubhumi.com that the Government initiated the scheme after thorough research and feasibility study. The major aim of the scheme is to ensure safe food and food security. The central Government-sponsored scheme Bharatiya Prakartik Krishi Padhathi (BPKP) was modified into an agro-ecology-based biodiversity conservation programme that is suitable for the State’s climate and soil conditions and is implemented under the title “Subhiksham Surakshitham”. Unlike Sri Lanka, the organic farming drive initiated in Kerala is well researched, he claimed.

The Subhiksham Surakshitham scheme envisages a farming method that focuses on soil health, biodiversity conservation, as well as promotion of organic food production. As part of this, the land in the State was divided into five agro-ecological zones based on the climatic conditions and soil types. The farming methods are adopted according to this. For example, the paddy cultivation strategy followed in Lower Kuttanad is different from that of Upper Kuttanad. So is the case with the kole fields in the Thrissur area. It is noteworthy that the type and amount of fertilisers and other products should be determined based on the soil type, availability of water, and other factors.

Adoption of scientific methods

The former Minister also claimed that the use of pesticides dropped by at least 40% in the previous year, while the production of paddy increased during this period. This indicates that the speculations regarding the efficacy of organic cultivation are baseless. Instead of sticking to the completely organic policy, the suitable farming methods are developed with the help of scientific studies. With this, the lack of nutrients or other factors that affect the plant growth and soil health can be accurately identified and resolved, he said.

As part of the mission, a Bio Control Lab was opened in Thrissur and a biofertiliser and organic manure quality control laboratory was set up in Pattambi of Palakkad which is a first of its kind in the State and second in the country. They research on the technology to develop bio control agents artificially so that pests can be warded off from plants safely and effectively. This will help reduce the use of pesticides.

The Package of Practices (POP) has been designed for the maintenance of the crops. This refers to the disease control and pest control methods adopted for each type of crop based on scientific studies. These are all part of finding out alternatives for the conventional methods of cultivation.

The Government offers all support for the farmers to apply the organic and scientific farming methods so that the sale of the produce does not cause headache for the farmers. Though the vegetables and fruits grown in the organic way cost more than the other ones, the customers are willing to pay for safe items. They have become aware of the positive sides of organic drive, Sunil Kumar said.

Pesticide consumption halved

Agricultural Prices Board Chairman Dr. P. Rajasekharan, who headed the research team that studies the Subhiksham Surakshitham scheme, told Mathrubhumi.com that the pesticide usage in the State has decreased considerably over the last few years. It is a major achievement that the State could reduce the pesticide consumption to nearly half within five years. This has been clearly shown in the statistics of the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine, and Storage. The pesticide consumption in Kerala dropped from 895 units in 2016-17 to 585 units in 2020-21.

When the crops are exported to foreign countries, they have to undergo different tests to ensure that they are consumable. Different countries follow different methods for this. In the organic farming drive of Kerala, Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) certification, a locally focused quality assurance system, is used for ensuring the quality of the organic produce. This is a guided peer-review and knowledge-sharing system.

The switching to the organic way is not something we can achieve in a single day. It should be done step by step, evaluating the impact and results. Even the organic farming drive announced in Kerala is being studied. The project will be expanded gradually after analysing the progress and efficacy. The most important objective of the State is to reduce pesticide consumption and avoid the subsequent health hazards. This has been fulfilled partially and efforts are being made to yield better results, he added.

(This article was published by Mathrubhumi on 21 October 2021)